L’Assommoir (1877) is the seventh novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Considered one of his masterpieces, the study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris was a huge commercial success and established Zola’s fame and reputation throughout France and the world.
It tells the story of Gervaise who runs away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry.
Thanks to Maria White and Harry for their help with this post.
Scene: Paris, 1850: a public washhouse. Enter Virginie Poisson, the local shrew, who hates the club-footed Gervaise.
Suddenly Mme Boche cried out:
“Goodness, if it isn’t that great tall Virginie! She is actually coming here to wash her rags tied up in a handkerchief.”
Gervaise looked up quickly. Virginie was a woman about her own age, larger and taller than herself, a brunette and pretty in spite of the elongated oval of her face. She hesitated a moment in the center aisle and half shut her eyes, as if looking for something or somebody, but when she distinguished Gervaise she passed close by her with her nose in the air, insolently swaying her hips, and finally established herself only a short distance from her.
Gervaise made a show of keeping her back to Virginie. But she could hear sniggering, and was conscious of her sidelong glances. Virginie, in fact, seemed to have come there to provoke her, and when Gervaise turned around the two women stared hard at one another.
Mme Boche whispered in her gruff voice, “Look at her over there, she’s laughing ’cause you’re crying — the heartless little cat!”
A wild tempest of rage shook Gervaise from head to foot. She stooped with her arms extended, as if feeling for something . . . then snatched up a bucket of soapsuds and threw it at Virginie.
“Bitch!” screamed Virginie. She’d jumped back, so only her boots were wet. All the women in the washhouse hurried to the scene of action. They jumped up on the benches, some with a piece of bread in their hands, others with a bit of soap, and a circle of spectators was soon formed.
“Oh! The bitch” repeated Virginie. “What has got into the fool?” Gervaise stood motionless, her face convulsed and lips apart. The other continued:
“Just look at her, she’s sick of fucking the provinces, soldiers had her for a mattress by the time she was twelve, she’s left a leg back home there. Rotted away it did!”
The women laughed. Virginie, emboldened by her success, went on in a louder and more triumphant tone:
“Come a little nearer, and I will soon settle you. You’d have been better off in the country. It is lucky for you that your dirty soapsuds only went on my feet, for I would have taken you over my knees, pulled up your skirts, and given you a good spanking if one drop had gone in my face. What is the matter with her, anyway?” And big Virginie addressed her audience: “Make her tell what I have done to her! Say! Trollop, what harm have I ever done to you?”
“You had best not talk so much,” answered Gervaise almost inaudibly; “you know very well where my husband was seen last night. Shut your trap or I’ll strangle you for sure .”
“Her husband, she says! Her husband! Madame’s husband! As if she could catch a husband with a bandy leg like hers! Is it my fault if he’s dumped you? . . .”
The laughter began again. Gervaise, in a low, concentrated voice, repeated:
“You know very well–you know very well! Your sister–yes, I will strangle your sister!”
“Oh yes, I understand,” answered Virginie. “Strangle her if you choose. What do I care? . . .”
Big Virginie turned away, but after five or six angry blows with her paddle she began again:
“Yes, it is my sister, and the two adore each other. You should see them bill and coo together. He has left you with these dirty-faced bastards . . .”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch!” screamed Gervaise, beside herself, once more trembling uncontrollably.
She turned and groped on the ground again; seeing nothing, finding only the small tub of bluing water, she threw that in Virginie’s face.
“The slut! She’s ruined my dress!” shrieked Virginie, whose shoulder and one hand were dyed a deep blue. “Just you wait, you shit!” she added as she, in her turn, snatched up a pail and emptied it over the young woman. At that point, a battle royal began . . . Soon it was impossible to keep track of the score. Both were shivering and streaming with water from head to foot, their bodices sticking to their backs, their skirts clinging to their buttocks .
The laundresses were immensely amused, and applauded as if at a theater . Suddenly Virginie discovered a bucket of scalding water standing a little apart; she caught it and threw it upon Gervaise. There was an exclamation of horror from the lookers-on. Gervaise escaped with only one foot slightly burned, but exasperated by the pain, she threw a tub with all her strength at the legs of her opponent. Virginie fell to the ground .
The battle began again, this time silent and wordless and literally tooth and nail . It was on Gervaise that the first blood was drawn. Three long scratches from her mouth to her throat bled profusely, and she closed her eyes with each attack, lest she have an eye put out.. As yet Virginie was not bleeding. Suddenly Gervaise seized one of her earrings–pear-shaped, of yellow glass–she pulled, the ear split, and blood began to flow .
Both women lay on the ground. Suddenly Virginie struggled up to her knees. She’d just picked up one of the paddles and was brandishing it. Her voice was hoarse and low as she muttered:
“This will be as good for you as for your dirty linen!”
Gervaise, in her turn, snatched another paddle, which she held like a club. Her voice also was hoarse and low.
“I will beat your skin,” she muttered, “as I would my coarse towels.”
They knelt in front of each other in utter silence for at least a minute, with hair streaming, eyes glaring and nostrils distended. They each drew a long breath.
Gervaise struck the first blow, with her paddle glancing off Virginie’s shoulder. And then she flung herself sideways to escape Virginie’s weapon, which brushed her hip.
Thus started, they struck each other as laundresses strike their linen, vigorously, rhythmically. When a blow landed on flesh, it sounded muffled, as if it had landed in a tub of water .
Suddenly Gervaise gave a howl. Virginie had hit her with all her might on her bare arm, above the elbow; a red patch appeared and immediately began to swell. She hurled herself at Virginie; the spectators thought she meant to kill her. “Stop! Stop!” they cried. But her face was so terrifying that no one dared go near.
With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie round the waist and forced her over so her face was pushed down onto the flagstones and her bottom was in the air; despite her struggles, Gervaise pulled her skirts all the way up. Underneath were drawers. Slipping her hand into the slit, she tore them off, exposing bare thighs and bare buttocks. Then Gervaise raised her paddle and began to beat . Each smack of the paddle fell on the soft flesh with a wet thud, leaving a scarlet mark .
The women were laughing again by this time, but soon the cry began again of “Enough! Enough!”
Gervaise didn’t hear, didn’t tire. Keeping her eyes on her work, she bent low over it, determined not to miss one single spot. She wanted every inch of this flesh beaten, beaten and scarlet with shame. And she began to sing, full of ferocious gaiety, as she remembered an old washer-woman’s song:
Bang! Bang! Magpie’s wash she’s thwacking,
Bang! Bang! With her paddle smacking,
Bang! Bang! Pain after sinning,
Bang! Bang! Here’s a beginning.
And she went on: “This one’s for you, this one’s for your sister, this one’s for Lantier. Mind you give it ‘em when you see ‘em. Wait! I’ve not finished. This one’s for Lantier, that for your sister, and this one’s for you!
Pan! Pan! Margot au lavoir!
Pan! Pan! a coups de battoir . . .
They had to drag Virginie out of her grasp. The tall brunette, weeping and sobbing, her face scarlet with mortification, grabbed her washing and fled, defeated.
Three weeks later, about half-past eleven one fine sunny morning, Gervaise and Coupeau, the tinworker, were eating some brandied fruit at Pere Colombe’s Tavern, known as L’Assommoir . . .
“Oh, you are none too amiable. You beat people sometimes, I have heard.”
She laughed gaily.
Yes, it was true she had beaten up that great hulking Virginie. That day she could have strangled someone with a glad heart. She began laughing even more when Coupeau recounted that Virginie was so mortified at having displayed everything she’d got, she’d left the neighborhood.
One Saturday Gervaise had hard work. It had rained for three days, and all the mud of the streets seemed to have been brought into the shop. Virginie stood behind the counter with collar and cuffs trimmed with lace. Near her on a low chair lounged Lantier, and he was, as usual, eating candy.
“Really, Madame Coupeau,” cried Virginie, “can’t you do better than that? You have left all the dirt in the corners. Don’t you see? Oblige me by doing that over again.”
Gervaise obeyed. She went back to the corner and scrubbed it again. She was on her hands and knees, with her sleeves rolled up over her arms. Her old skirt clung close to her stout form, and the sweat poured down her face.
“The more elbow grease you put into it, the more it shines,” said Lantier sententiously with his mouth full.
Virginie, leaning back in her chair with the air of a princess, followed the progress of the work with half-closed eyes.
“A little more to the right. Remember, those spots must all be taken out. Last Saturday, you know, I wasn’t all that pleased.”
And they both put on an even more majestic air, as if they were on thrones, while Gervaise dragged herself about at their feet in the black mud. Virginie must have been enjoying herself, for her cat’s eyes sparkled with malicious joy, and she glanced at Lantier with a little smile. Yes, now she had her revenge for that mortification in the wash-house, that paddling she’d never ever been able to forget!
In the 1956 film, based on L’Assommoir, Gervaise was played by Maria Schell while Virginie was played by Suzy Delair. Just as in the book, Gervaise pulls down Virginie’s drawers and exposes her buttocks before beating her with a paddle. Delair’s bare bottom actually belongs to a body double who was a dancer at the Crazy Horse Saloon with the typically bizarre stage name of Rita Cadillac… and a wonderfully photogenic backside!
Émile Zola’s son and great-grandaughter, Brigit, watched the spanking scene being filmed but it was too much for the US censor who cut it out.
As a little girl of about ten I had accompanied my grandfather Jacques on the set of Gervaise and had seen the different rehearsals of the famous “spanking” scene. Maria Schell played Gervaise; my grandfather was pleased to note that she represented the character of Gervaise well, physically and psychologically. He chatted with her, and I was all ears.
It was reinstated for the DVD release which featured a drawing of the scene on the cover.
There have been numerous stage productions of Zola’s novel. The famous impresario Augustin Daly produced a version in New York just a couple of years after the book was first published, and in Paris a 1900 production caused quite a stir when a large billboard went up featuring the paddling scene .
Skipping forward the best part of one hundred years to the north of England, a version of L’Assommoir was performed under the title A Working Woman at the West Yorkshire playhouse in November 1992.
It was adapted by Stephen Wyatt and the script includes the fight in the laundry with a few interesting variations. Virginie is bent over an ironing board and the paddling is sound tracked by can-can music. In one important respect the scene follows the book though; Gervaise pulls down Virginie’s drawers!
Virginie enters with a token quantity of washing. She walks slowly down past Gervaise, smiling, and then back up to a place with the other washer women.
Mme B: Hey, Virginie, what are you doing here?
Virginie pulls a couple of other women into a huddle for a whisper. Her face is full of malicious amusement.
Mme B: (looking at her) I reckon she’s only come here to gloat. She knows all about it, you can bet your life. She’s going to run straight home and tell them how you’ve taken it.
A burst of laughter from Virginie and her friends. Gervaise turns to face Virginie. Virginie is aware of her gaze.
Virginie: (to her friends) I think Lantier prefers women with two legs.
Gervaise picks up the bucket and throws the water at her.
Virginie: You bitch!
The whole washhouse is silent now. Virginie turns angrily.
Virginie: So what made you do that then, you lop-sided cow?
Gervaise: (hotly) As if you didn’t know.
Virginie: It’s not me that’s taken your precious husband. Anyone here found Madame’s husband? I’m sure she’ll offer a reward.
Gervaise: He’s gone with your sister, you know bloody well.
Virginie: And who can blame him?
Gervaise: You cow, you bloody cow!
She attacks Virginie. The two women roll across the floor fighting while the other women encourage them and beat their buckets and boards excitedly.
Mme B: (to Charles) Someone ought to stop them.
Charles: (grinning) Not me love. Best show I’ve seen in years.
Gervaise grabs Viginie’s ear and pulls her earring off. Verginie screams at the pain then grabs Gervaise and wrenches her arm savagely behind her back. Triumphantly she claims victory. But Gervaise comes up behind her and forces her over one of the ironing boards. She grabs a wooden beater from one of the other women, pulls down Virginie’s drawers and starts to beat her.
Gervaise: I’ll tan your arse for you! You won’t sit down for a week!
The other women roar approval and dance mockingly round the beating to can-can music. Finally Gervaise, exhausted and satisfied, throws down the beater. Virginie crawls away sobbing with humiliation. The others congratulate Gervaise and then start to leave. Gervaise stands there, the excitement of her moment of triumph seeping from her.
In the 1992 West Yorkshire Playhouse production, Gervaise was played by Kate Gartside ,
and Christabelle Dilks went across the ironing board!